Hidden symbols of a state dinner: Gilt mirrors, a special bouquet, chocolate and more

Tuesday night’s state dinner at the White House honoring French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, will be an opportunity to highlight the historic settings and artifacts that commemorate our heritage and celebrate the honored guests.

In every presidential administration, opportunities arise to use the iconic setting of the White House to highlight American values and impart a strong sense of personal style. These dinners are later memorialized in historical and personal accounts. Images from them may even become indelibly etched in our minds.

I know something about such occasions, because I was chief floral designer at the White House from 2009 to 2015. I was honored to help design décor and flowers for two visits by heads of state from France: the private dinner that President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama hosted for President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni, in 2010; and the state visit of President Francois Hollande in 2014.

For both events, the flowers were designed to carry out diplomatic, cultural and historical themes – with the goal of honoring France and the individual leaders, as well as to celebrate cherished American traditions and ideals.

Using flowers, symbolism, colors and historical pieces from the White House collection, my goal was to weave an integrated tapestry of inspired designs that told the story of the longstanding friendship between the U.S. and France

As the eyes of the world turn to see the meeting of two world leaders at the White House this week, here are the key things to look for in terms of floral and style diplomacy:

Our relationship with France dates back to the Revolutionary War, so this state dinner will likely include symbols that both commemorate our common bond and exemplify our shared democratic ideals.

Flowers and décor are not just simple decorative placements. They have the potential to take on a nuanced diplomatic role, conveying strategic messaging in support of the administration’s policies and priorities that resonate in the White House setting and around the world.

When the French president and his wife arrived at the White House Monday, the exterior was awash in red, white and blue to greet the delegation. This was followed by the impressive pomp and circumstance of the state arrival ceremony on the South Lawn Tuesday morning.

In addition to this pageantry, it’s possible we’ll see other signs and symbolism that bolster the narrative about the strength of our longstanding friendship, in both overt and subtle ways. The ceremonial planting Monday of an oak tree on the South Lawn of the White House – a symbolic gift to the Trumps from the French president and his wife – is being reciprocated by a comparable gesture from the president and first lady.

President Trump and Melania Trump are giving the Macrons a section of framed upholstery from one of the carved and gilded Blue Room chairs, designed in France and commissioned by President James Monroe.

But perhaps the greatest opportunity for making a symbolic statement will focus on the bonds of war. Because our relationship with France was solidified on the battlefields of the American Revolutionary War, along with World Wars I and II, commemorative memorial wreaths of symbolic flowers – a universal symbol of tribute that honors fallen heroes – can add a special, meaningful touch.

Some of the most beautiful and historic pieces in the White House collection have a French provenance – the 18th century gilt mirrored Monroe Plateau, the early 19th century marble-topped table in the Red Room by a French-American cabinetmaker, and the French Blue Room furniture acquired by President Monroe are just a few examples.

For their first state dinner President and Mrs. Trump are likely to showcase this prized White House collection that highlights America’s longstanding infatuation with French style and decorative arts.

Look for special vignettes and tributes displayed throughout the White House during the state visit. The antique objects are not only beautiful, but often come with wonderful stories that bring the inanimate objects to life.

In addition to highlighting the White House collection of French decorative arts, the first lady is paying tribute to former first ladies Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush by selecting their china for this inaugural state visit.

Additional décor includes the large urns of cherry blossoms lining the Great Hall. Cherry blossoms are not only the quintessential emblem of spring in Washington, but also in Paris, where they are currently in bloom in the Jardin de Tuilieries near the Elysses Palace, the home of the French first couple. 

In the context of international diplomacy, kind personal gestures and genuine rapport among leaders carry great diplomatic weight, especially when conducted on the prominent White House stage. The Trumps and the Macrons are already off to a good start, having cemented their personal friendship last year when President Trump and the first lady visited France.

When the Macrons arrived at Joint Base Andrews Monday, Melania Trump launched the visit on a high symbolic note by arranging for an aide to present Brigitte Macron with a bouquet of purple irises, the national flower of France. President Macron noted this with obvious approval.

At Blair House, the official guest house for visiting dignitaries, the first lady likely sent a bouquet of flowers in the French style, featuring wildflowers inspired by the meadows surrounding the French couple’s hometown, along with a presidential welcome note penned in French.

Melania Trump, with her mastery of multiple languages, including French, is be able to converse with the Macrons in their native tongue, adding a unique touch of hospitality.

At the White House, especially during the private reception that is held in the residence before the state dinner, there will be additional opportunities to articulate special personal touches.

These personal touches range from décor that incorporates chocolate (a nod to Mrs. Macron’s heritage coming from a family of chocolatiers) and vases decorated with sheet music (honoring President Macron’s musical achievements as an award-winning pianist).

The sheet music showcases Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune,” Maurice Ravel’s Bolero,” and the French national anthem. If the Trumps are lucky, perhaps President Macron will sit down to play these pieces on the grand piano in the Center Hall.

After the dinner, Mrs. Trump can add the piece de resistance finishing touch by presenting Mrs. Macron with a hand-held bouquet in the French style – a custom and practice I learned in France and introduced at the White House.

As former French first lady Carla Bruni departed the White House in 2010, Michelle Obama gave her a small white “Chanel bouquet” that was designed to honor her time as a Chanel model and French recording artist. This was a symbol of friendship adding a personal and memorable touch to a beautiful evening.

Tuesday night’s state dinner, like most state visits, will not be remembered for scintillating toasts or serious policy breakthroughs. It will be remembered for the many meticulous details that convey symbolic meaning and metaphor and lay the groundwork for fruitful relationships and international diplomacy.

Flowers and décor are not just simple decorative placements. They have the potential to take on a nuanced diplomatic role, conveying strategic messaging in support of the administration’s policies and priorities that resonate in the White House setting and around the world. This is the power – and potential – of floral and style diplomacy.